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Friday, January 27, 2023

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Official: Google Removes Auto-Background Feature

Confused about why Google was showing a picture on its home page today. Apparently, plenty of people were, some to the point of being upset. In reaction, Google’s dropped the feature.

Marissa Mayer, Google’s vice president of search products and user experience, confirmed the change via an update to the official Google blog post that originally announced the new feature:

Last week, we launched the ability to set an image of users’ choosing as the background for the Google homepage. Today, we ran a special “doodle” that showcased this functionality by featuring a series of images as the background for our homepage. We had planned to run an explanation of the showcase alongside it—in the form of a link on our homepage. Due to a bug, the explanatory link did not appear for most users. As a result, many people thought we had permanently changed our homepage, so we decided to stop today’s series early. We appreciate your feedback and patience as we experiment and iterate.

That followed Mayer’s earlier confirmation via her Twitter account today, where she had said:

Actually as of now 🙂 @Jon_E Google search background back to normal tomorrow, says @marissamayer.

Google did explain through the post that for today, it was showing a photo background on its normally clean, white home page. However relatively few Google users actually read its blog, so wouldn’t know what was going on.

In addition, many people appear not to have liked it, ironically turning to Google desperately seeking a way to turn it off. Google Trends, which shows popular queries, showed a spike for “remove google background” searches:

Russell Crowe hasn’t died, by the way, if you notice that in the trends above. That’s a rumor almost certainly sparked by the same site that made people think that Jeff Goldblum died last year (he didn’t).

Today, I’ve seen a number of tweets where people were trying to figure out how to turn off the feature. One option was to use the Editor’s Choice “white” pick, which actually didn’t restore “Classic” Google. In addition, that option seemed only available to people with Google accounts. To use it, you had to sign in. Plenty of Google users don’t have Google Accounts.

The entire thing reminded me and some others of a story featured on the Huffington Post (apparently via Topless Robot) where an older woman is confused about how to turn off the Google Pac-Man game that ran for two days last month. She couldn’t figure out how to turn it off and called tech support for help.

The recording of her conversation has just been removed from YouTube, flagged as private. But listening to it, it did make me realize that just saying something is going to go away after a certain date still isn’t that helpful. That Pacman game just started with no off switch. So, too, did the background.

The confusion only adds to the failure today’s experiment probably has turned into. Over at Techmeme, a site that collects headlines from technology blogs and related mainstream media sources, there are plenty of headlines talking about Google having “Bing-envy” or becoming Bing for the day:

Bing, of course, made a big splash when it launched a year ago by having a home page with a different picture that appeared each day. It actually had that feature before under its Live Search name, but it got renewed attention as part of the launch.

My previous article, Google Home Page: Now Featuring Your Pictures, provides more background about what Bing has done, how they borrowed from Ask.com plus how Google’s new “add your own picture” feature was launched last week. Google denied then that it was trying to copy Bing:

“The real motivation for this had to do with iGoogle,” said Marissa Mayer, Google’s vice president of search products and user experience. “Some users really prefer the classic look but want a small amount of personalization, so this is a happy medium in between.” She added, “We think it has the same type of appeal that wallpaper does on your desktop or your phone.”

Fair enough, letting people add their own pictures as a custom background is not a direct copy of Bing. It’s actually a feature that Bing itself should offer but doesn’t.

However, today’s move to automatically change the Google background using photos that Google selected was definitely a direct copy, and from a company that claims it doesn’t copy others. Yes, it was only meant to last a day. Yes, it was meant to promote the “add your own picture” feature. But I also felt it was designed to test how Google users might react if Google did a picture-per-day like Bing on its home page.

Answer? A lot apparently are fine with plain old “boring” Google.


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